Saturday, November 24, 2007

Redacted and the Iraq War Film

Brian De Palma is one of those filmmakers that has been accredited alongside some of the greats of the 1970s, often being put in the same category as Scorsese, Coppola, Altman, Polanski, Mike Nichols, and the like. Yet De Palma has no grand opus, no film from the period that defines him as a great filmmaking personality that has succeeded across time and emanated through culture—he has no equivalent to Taxi Driver, The Godfather, or Chinatown.

De Palma is most famous for the campiest of campy gangster pics, Scarface; and his 1970s catalogue (with the exception of Carrie) is better known for the references made to them in Tarantino flicks than the original films themselves (ie. the split-screen sequence in Kill Bill Vol. 1). As far as his recent filmography, the bad (Femme Fatale) has considerably outweighed the good (Mission: Impossible). And if the incredibly long tracking shots that open both Snake Eyes and Mission to Mars are any indication, De Palma’s technical ingenuity far exceeds his storytelling ability. One should proceed with caution before putting him alongside the masters of the 1970s.

His latest, Redacted, has been one of a recent trend of under- performing films that deal with the Iraq war. Like Rendition and the upcoming Stop-Loss, its title comes from military/foreign relations terminology. “Redacted” refers specifically to the censoring of controversial material for the American media, namely pictures and other information regarding Iraqi civilians harmed or killed by US soldiers. The film itself is a narrative, documentary-style reenactment of the rape and murder of a fifteen year-old Iraqi girl by US soldiers.

Redacted definitely presents a perspective on the war rarely seen by the mainstream media, and the film’s criticism of the war and its troops is unapologetically scathing. The message is disturbingly clear: we cannot, with a clear conscience, simply deem the innocent lives lost in an unjust war as “casualties” and hide behind the statistics therein; the American government must take responsibility for atrocities that happen in a country they try to occupy.

But the film’s attempts at “realism” fall resoundingly short. The entire narrative is mediated through home videos, security cameras, newscasts on various national networks, and YouTube videos (and its middle eastern equivalent)—and, in the most classic attempt at realism, all the roles are played by no-name actors. While this effort makes sense in making a film about a war that is saturated by all types of media, the characters and performances are so obviously scripted and stiff as to automatically eliminate any such realism. De Palma does not let us get to know the psychology of any of these characters, and instead he gives us cardboard cut-outs of bad soldiers, worse soldiers, and morally ambiguous soldiers (another example of De Palma’s favor of technical ingenuity over storytelling ability). Redacted then makes one final, full-on move into melodrama with one soldier’s pathetic, hardly believable lament over witnessing the rape. Then De Palma subjects us to possibly the most powerful and hotly debated moment of the film: pictures of real-life Iraqi “casualties” with their eyes censored by black lines (“redacted”).

At the film’s center is Pvt. Angel “Sally” Salazar, who records his experience in Iraq continuously, hoping that whatever he ends up with will get him into USC film school (poor Sally doesn’t realize that USC doesn’t accept previously made films as part of their application). Sally tells one soldier that he’s recording everything to tell the truth, that a video camera is a device for telling such truth, while another soldier responds, “All that thing does is lie.” De Palma himself openly argues the latter perspective, as he is quoted to have said, “The camera lies all the time; lies 24 times a second” (probably as a reversal of Godard’s iconic quote, “Film is truth at 24 frames a second”). And this message is a timely one: the constant media saturation doesn’t reveal any truth about Iraq, and only confuses any existing version of the “truth”—we can never "truly" know Iraq.

Sally is executed (beheaded) by supposed insurgents because of the rape—but Sally didn’t rape the girl, he only filmed it. This “killing the messenger” could be De Palma’s “execution” by the mainstream media for making such a film, for merely “observing the incident with his camera”. Judging by Bill O’Reilly’s call to boycott Redacted (which he, of course, hasn’t actually seen), De Palma’s symbolic martyr may not be too presumptuous.

While it's difficult to truly believe American soldiers are as immaculate in their moral structure as they are made out to be by both “support the troops, finish the job” Republicans and “support the troops, bring them home” Democrats, the soldiers themselves are indeed victims in this ridiculous war. Many are largely marginalized, lower-class citizens who have had little choice but to join the military while a certain US president relaxes on his ranch four months a year. While atrocities committed by US military should certainly be brought to media attention, De Palma’s portrayal of soldiers as racist, morally bankrupt, two-dimensional automatons feels severely misguided. In a time of such corrupt politics, isn’t it more appropriate to criticize the war from the top, down rather than from the bottom, up? Also, if De Palma’s goal were to make a film about the censoring of information, wouldn’t it be more appropriate to tell the story through the eyes of a journalist or government official, rather than make a fake documentary that poses itself as a piece of investigative journalism?

I was excited earlier this fall to see a slew of Iraq-themed films, for I (and, no doubt, the filmmakers) believe such films could make a positive impact on the war, America’s foreign policy, or even inspire protest and resistance by the American people. But such films, including this one, have proved to be immensely disappointing. As many have somewhat naïvely coined the Iraq war as the "new Vietnam" (but this is not near as naïve as Rumsfeld equating it with WWII’s fight against fascism), filmmakers and studios may have hoped movies would criticize Iraq as they did so well against Vietnam decades ago. Thus, it is not surprising that notoriously nonconformist filmmakers who gained their fame during the Vietnam era are now making films about Iraq, like Robert Redford (Lions for Lambs) and De Palma.

While its narrative bears a strong resemblance to De Palma’s Vietnam film, Casualties of War, Redacted is part and parcel of the Iraq war. As Globe and Mail’s Rick Groen stated in his review, “No other war could have produced a movie like this.” Iraq is not Vietnam, and likewise, Iraq movies are not Vietnam movies, no matter how much we’d like for them to be.

What people forget is that movies about Vietnam weren’t made until after the war. Probably the first Hollywood movie that dealt explicitly with the war was Hal Ashby’s Coming Home in 1978, with Jon Voight in an Oscar-winning performance as a paraplegic veteran. After that was Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978), Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), and an onslaught of Vietnam films in the 1980s: Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989), Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987), John Irvin’s Hamburger Hill (1987), De Palma’s Casualties of War (1989), and a curious pattern of conservative Reagan-era Vietnam films: the Rambo series.

These films had the privilege of hindsight. More importantly, many of them had themes that stretched far beyond the war itself, catapulting them into continuous reverence as an inseparable part of the history of American film. Apocalypse Now, in particular, because it was based on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (written decades before the war) and adapted to Vietnam, retains themes of the book regarding the troubling nature of colonization, and this transforms Apocalypse Now into something far more complicated than just a “war film”.

The films that liberal, nonconformist filmmakers made during the Vietnam War were far more universal than today’s films about Iraq. Hollywood had no interest in making films about the war itself, so filmmakers used allegory and symbolism to object to the war and the growing American conservatism at large.

Take Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), for example. On the surface, it’s a standard western about an eccentric named John McCabe (Warren Beatty) who develops a modest brothel in a small northwestern town. But, as the narrative develops, the film takes on the larger themes of American big business’ attempts to eradicate the more “authentic” small business. The film uses a traditional genre to explore contemporary issues. But because the film works so well on its own terms, and its themes are so timeless, it isn’t stuck in 1971. It still speaks to audiences more than thirty years later. Even Altman’s previous “war” film, MASH (1970) isn’t “about” the Vietnam war (Fox forced a prologue that said it was about the Korean war), yet MASH is still indisputably of its era, and has aged well because of the universality of its antiestablishment character types.

The Graduate. Bonnie and Clyde. Midnight Cowboy. Harold and Maude. The Godfather. The Conversation. The Last Detail. Taxi Driver. None of these films explicitly address the controversies of the late sixties and early seventies, but they do implicitly deal with such themes, and their politics are certainly indicative of the era they were made. Their lack of explicit address prevents them from being stuck in time. People still, amazingly enough, watch these movies.

As evidenced by the lack of response by both critics and audiences, the current string of films about the Iraq war are too preachy and too concerned with the most recent headlines. Their messages only extend to what their characters explicitly say about the conflict, spoon-feeding their politics to us (as screenwriting continues to lack subtlety in the era of Paul Haggis).

Hollywood needs to take a lesson from the era they’re trying to emulate. They need to seek the depth and allegory of movies from the sixties and seventies. Filmmakers today need to learn that they can deliver their message without showing a character ranting on YouTube. If Redacted is any indication, what these films desperately need is “characters,” not stand-ins and talking heads.

These films of the Iraq War have no universal themes. They are only indicative of the specific day and time they were made and the most current political climate. In a few years years, Rendition, Lions for Lambs and Redacted will be irrelevant, and even more invisible than they are now, no matter how important they try to be today.

Come on, guys. You can do better.

The New Western (?)

Many things define a Western. The time period, the costumes, the gunfights, the photogenic landscapes; but perhaps the central tenet of the Western is the theme of civilizing (“Americanizing”) the frontier West, molding it into a society of proper law and order. Three films from this fall approach this genre—which has been largely ignored in recent years—in different ways. The Western may not be dead after all.

3:10 TO YUMA

The most traditional Western in a long time, 3:10 to Yuma keeps intact all the genre's conventions. It feels as if it were lifted directly from the fifties with simply a more violent tone and more rapid editing than what could have existed back in those days, obviously in part because it is a remake of a 1950s Western. The widescreen vistas, the eccentric villain, the gunfights—it’s all here. But what is most surprising about the film is the very tradition of its traditional style. The film is astoundingly unaware of its rarity in an era when there is hardly a Western at all. 3:10 to Yuma exercises all the genre conventions with a natural ease of storytelling, as if Westerns like this were just as common today as they were fifty years ago.

Most Westerns made in recent years are overwhelmingly tongue-in-cheek, always trying a little too hard to give the genre a new look and contemporary feel (Wild Wild West is one of the more extreme examples of this). Even movies like Tombstone and Unforgiven seemed to always be shouting at the audience, “Look! Look! I’m a Western!” But 3:10 to Yuma has such a convincing atmosphere, complete with compelling dialogue and straightforward performances by Russell Crowe’s villainous Ben Wade and Christian Bale’s tragically heroic Dan Evans, that allows the audience to be so subsumed into the story as to not realize that they are watching a type of genre film that hasn’t found success in its classic, traditional form since the early 1960s.

The theme of civilizing the West is as classical as ever here: in order for law and order to be established and civilization to evolve, miscreants like Wade must be abolished from the landscape. This scenario can be found in dozens of other Westerns, yet the film thankfully has no Tarantinoesque wink-wink tendencies referencing the classics, allowing the audience to enjoy it on its own terms. The film arguably contradicts the common notion (from studios, audiences and filmmakers) that Westerns cannot exist in their classic form in our era. The Western, 3:10 to Yuma argues, is far from dead.


The Assassination of Jesse James can be argued as an anti-Western. While the film has the time period, costumes, and photography right, everything from the minimalist score to the lengthy title to the quiet, meditative pace to the omniscient narration that sounds like it came from a MasterCard commercial mold this epic into something far different. The film is a thorough deconstruction of the most mythic of Western myths, the James gang. Jesse James has been portrayed many, many times in film, but never quite like this. The reimagined James is a man who is very aware that his myth and reputation far exceed the flesh and blood of the man himself—and by questioning the myth of Jesse James, the myth of the Western itself is disrupted.

Jesse James is portrayed as a fractured depressive, torn by every innocent man he has killed and robbed. He is far from the 19th century American Robin Hood he is most often thought to be. We see James through the eyes of Robert Ford, a naïve youngster who believes the myth he hears about in stories is the same as the man himself. Ford actually believes in the myth of the West, and he suffers for his dire misconception. The lengthy title explicitly states what the end of their relationship will be, so the film doesn’t rely on a suspenseful narrative trajectory, allowing the audience to become involved with the quiet relationship of James and Ford instead of any normal storyline. And, as the title suggests, Ford hardly has the redeemable qualities of the traditional Western hero.

James’ assassination is the result of a childish rivalry. Unlike the justice brought to Ben Wade, the ridding of James from society is not part of the civilizing process. Ford is a pawn of the government, and is therefore a victim of such a process, suggesting corruption and hypocrisy in American justice. The notion of classical hero and villain are subverted with the ways James and Ford are portrayed. Evidenced by the way the American people react to the assassination, James’ death doesn’t bring any order to society, instead only furthering disorder, suggesting that America was never civilized under such simplistic moral values, and Americans instead prefer the myth of the man who stole and killed for fame rather than the man who supposedly brought justice.


Many will argue that the latest from the Coen brothers is not at all a Western, and in many ways they are right: the film is wrong in terms of the time period, the costuming, the weaponry, and the film doesn’t contain any form of a classic Western narrative. But the landscape is definitely there, as Roger Deakins’ camera manages to capture the Western horizon beautifully. The cowboy hats, West Texas setting, and violence also vaguely remind one of a Western.

Yet No Country for Old Men attacks the notion of the civilizing process in a way that only a Western set in modern day could. While the forward-moving part of its narrative follows a unique cat-and-mouse chase between Josh Brolin’s Llewelyn and Javier Bardem’s Chigurh, Tommy Lee Jones’ almost completely inactive Sheriff Bell has a lucid, contemplative, existential presence throughout the film that hardly does anything to move the narrative forward, but brings the film’s themes to the forefront. Bell laments over a world that he sees to be getting worse and worse, and he exercises his angst through the case of a drug run gone wrong. And as Llewlyn’s situation gets more hopeless, Bell becomes more complacent.

What Bell is upset over could be read as the de-civilization of the West, that all the law and order and clear morality that once existed is quickly falling into chaos and anarchy. Bell lays out at the opening’s voice-over narration that the world is getting progressively worse, and he discusses the decline of morality with each passing generation with another aging sheriff towards the film's end. Yet Bell has a conversation later with a wheelchair-bound old man who has an alternative, less nostalgic philosophy: the world has always been unjust. Either the West is being de-civilized, or it never was in the first place. That the film drops off with no real closure suggests something of a validity in both these notions.

There is no traditional Western hero in either Llewelyn or Bell, but there is an easily identifiable villain of No Country for Old Men. Chigurh claims to have principles, but not in the admirable way that even the vilest of classic Western villains do (ie. Ben Wade). There is no notion of honor or bravery in the new West, just a Darwinian natural selection that gives no mercy to the weak or kind. Cigurh’s principles rely instead on a twisted definition of fate that allows him to kill virtually any person he wants for no reason—he doesn’t even spare women. In contrast to the classical Western villain who is ultimately brought to justice, Chigurh continues to freely roam the landscape. Chigurh’s freedom is the sign of signs that the West is in a state of inevitable de-civilization, delving into a world where justice, like the myth of the West, is dead.